by Brian Gifford
Peering through his wire-rimmed glasses, John looked at his grandson with friendly, inviting eyes. “Have you gotten over George’s passing yet?” he asked Andy as Andy stepped into the room. John was nestled in an armchair situated in the living room of his small, one-bed room apartment.
“Not yet,” Andy answered. “I think it’s going to take a while.” Andy was pleased that his grandfather cared what he thought.
And John was pleased with Andy’s answer. John was ninety-one years old, and his favorite country singer, George Jones, had just died from natural causes at the age of eighty-one. Of natural causes—at the age of eighty-one. John had outlived his musical hero by ten years so far. Natural causes, John knew, were coming for him soon too. So hidden just below the surface of John’s inquiry, there was another unspoken question: “When I pass away, how long will it take for you to get over me?”
Andy’s grandmother, Anne, had passed away in 1986—twenty-seven years ago—from colon cancer at the age of sixty-one, and John had never gotten over her. For his part, Andy remembered his grandmother as the definition of grace and class; in his memory, she was bespeckled in gold like a lady in a Gustav Klimt painting.
“Are you ready to go see her?” John asked. The purpose of Andy’s visit was to go with his grandfather to the cemetery where Anne was buried.
“I’m ready,” Andy said.
After paying their respects to Anne and other family members buried nearby, Andy went to his car’s trunk to retrieve something he had brought to place by her tombstone: a picture of Jesus Christ. Andy placed the marker in the ground. Andy and his grandfather stood in silent contemplation for a few moments before John, pointing to the marker, said to Andy: “You always were partial to Jesus.”
Andy couldn’t help but laugh at his grandfather’s trenchant wit. It was only in the middle of the night, after he had returned home, that his grandfather’s comment about his partiality to Jesus caused Andy concern, for it implied that his grandfather was not partial to Jesus. He wanted his grandfather’s commitment to Jesus to be as strong as his love of George Jones. Andy knew what he had to do. Although a generation apart, he and John were both from a time when important communications from a distance were primarily epistolary; they wrote letters to one another whenever there was something important to say. Because of his grandfather’s comment that he was “partial to Jesus,” Andy worried whether his grandfather had asked Jesus into his heart, so in a letter to his grandfather Andy set forth the Gospel and then asked him if he had been saved.
Two days later, Andy received a letter in which John wrote back that the tomatoes were doing fine, and that the honeysuckle was on the vine, and he included a few more couplets before getting, almost as an afterthought it seemed, to the point about which Andy had inquired: One night on a boat in the Pacific during World War II, he had asked God to forgive him for his sins and asked Jesus into his heart. He could not have made it through the pain of Anne’s passing without Him. And then, with that topic addressed, John returned to George Jones, for whom a public funeral would be held at the Grand Ole Opry, saying that he wished he could go.
With too little time for a letter, Andy picked up the telephone and called his grandfather.
“Would you like to go to George’s funeral with me?” Andy asked.
“I love George,” John said. “But I’m not sure I can handle a nine-hour car trip.”
“I’ll fly us there,” Andy said, and John agreed.
During the flight to Nashville, John thought about his life as a husband and a high school English teacher and principal and compared it to the life and music of George Jones. To say that Jones was classic country was a half-truth; truth be told, he was unique, sui generis even. In his songs there was a plaintive warbling, a languorous longing; a nostalgic aching; he would stretch a single syllable into five perfectly placed ones; he would slide into a note, getting there at just the right moment; he would grab the note through clenched teeth, hold onto it with the back of his throat and then let it go when it was perfectly ripe, like a sentence coming to an end at just the right time. He had it all, everything from a sonorous bass to a clear-as-a-bell tenor. John liked that there was nothing political about George’s music; his songs were primarily about the ties that bind us together—or the turmoil that tears us apart. And he was happy to know that one of his grandsons would continue his love of the greatest singer the world had ever known. Not just the greatest country singer. To say that George Jones was John’s favorite country singer was to say he was his favorite singer; for him, there was no other kind of music. Up until he was seventy years old, John sang the lead vocals in a George Jones tribute band. As good as people said they were, John always thought of the band as a pale imitation. There was nothing like the real thing.
George Jones and John lived completely different lives. Until his fourth marriage, Jones lived a troubled life marred by alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic conflict. John had the occasional home-made wine, but he never abused alcohol or any drug, and he and Anne remained faithful to one another through all of life’s ups and downs.
“Here’s something I remember,” John told Andy as they were descending into Nashville: “Sometime in the late 1960’s your grandmother and I went to see George Jones in concert, but Jones failed to make an appearance. He did that often enough over the years that he became known as ‘No Show Jones.’ After being stood up we’d say ‘we hate George Jones. But then we’d hear him singing on the radio and we’d say, ‘we can’t hate George.’”
At the funeral, every seat in the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry was filled. At one point during the service, Charlie Daniels stood in the circle and began by reading a eulogy to George Jones in which he described him as “probably the most imitated country singer of all time” but then said that “nobody ever came close to doing it like the man himself. With young singers who tried to emulate George Jones it was an affectation, while with George it was a God-given natural talent.” And Daniels bemoaned the “modern day of follow the leader, cookie-cutter whatever the radio will play sameness.” John applauded loudly along with most everyone else and even hooted and hollered a bit. Then Daniels sang Softly and Tenderly. “Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home…” Andy glanced over at John to gauge his reaction and was happy to see that his grandfather was mouthing the words as Daniels sang.
On the way out, John said to Andy: “Tell your mother and aunt that, when it comes my time to go, they shouldn’t make so much of a fuss over me.”
Back at the hotel room, Andy searched for stories about Jones, learning for the first time that he had sung a good bit of Gospel music. Andy then discovered something else he had not seen before. About a year before his passing, Jones had invited a singer named Eric Lee Beddingfield to sing a song called the “Gospel According to Jones” for Jones’s 80th birthday concert. The song expressed a working man’s Christian Universalism. The Gospel According to Jones holds that everyone is going to sing in the heavenly choir—everyone will be saved. Andy wished it were true, but there were Bible verses going both ways. Andy asked his grandfather what he thought about it. John said: “I hope everyone makes it—except maybe Hitler and the like—but I remain agnostic about other people’s destinies, and I don’t think I need to be trying to save anyone’s soul.” And John continued: “One thing I do wonder about is this: I know that George Jones sang about Jesus, but does Jesus sing George Jones?”
“It would make sense,“ Andy said. “The Bible says that Jesus was tempted—in the desert, for example—and there is a lot of temptation in a George Jones song.”
After John and Andy returned home, months of letters were exchanged until the winter, when his grandfather began catching respiratory infections with alarming frequency and was admitted to hospice care. He passed away a few months later. His obituary noted his thirty-seven months in the South Pacific during World War II and ended with this valediction: “John was a kind, gentle man who will be missed by his family, former students, teachers and friends.”
Comments to his obituary from friends and former students alike described him consistently in the same terms: A great teacher and principal, kind, gentle, caring, and humble. At his funeral, Andy cried along with everyone else, but by the end he was smiling, believing there was no doubt that his grandfather was in heaven singing with Jesus and George Jones. The only question was who was singing lead. Perhaps they were taking turns. And one other thing Andy knew for certain: It would be a long time before he stopped missing his grandfather.
Brian Gifford has previously published short fiction and poetry in, among other publications, The November 3rd Club, The Copperfield Review, Boston Literary Magazine, and Mississippi Crow. He works as a law clerk for a bankruptcy judge in Columbus, Ohio.